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Doris Ulmann (1882-1934)

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Biographical Essay

Photographer Doris Ulmann with a camera
Doris Ulmann with a camera
University of Kentucky Libraries

Doris Ulmann might be surprised to learn that it has taken so long to be acknowledged as a photojournalist. As a student of Clarence H. White, she would have been encouraged to publish her photographs in books and magazines and during the last decade of her life, she made at least some of her photographs for that express purpose. She did not need to earn a living but she evidently felt compelled to make a life for herself, which she did through photography.

Trained as an art photographer in the 1910s, Ulmann invited celebrities to her apartment at 1000 Park Avenue in New York City to discuss their work and to pose for her camera. A secular humanist, she ultimately worked with Progressive and Social Gospel activists and feminists using her camera to provide socially meaningful images of "the folk," people outside the rapidly industrializing American mainstream. These included Native Americans, African Americans, craftsmen, musicians, and members of religious communities, as seen in her Appalachian and Sea Island photographs.

Publication of Ulmann's photographs in magazines were part of the transition from magazines illustrated with drawings to those with photographs, and, in the 1930s, to picture magazines like Life (1936) and Look (1937). Her photographs helped change the way we perceive and therefore represent the people she photographed, from quaint, picturesque peasants to individuals with dignity and purpose in the modern world.

The Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress has more than 160 platinum prints by Ulmann and continues to acquire her work. The images, which span her whole career from 1915 to 1934, include first edition sets of The Faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York: Twenty-four Portraits (1919), A Book of Portraits of the Faculty of the Medical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (1922), and A Portrait Gallery of American Editors (1925). The Prints and Photographs Division also houses a general reference copy of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) while the Rare Book Division maintains three limited edition copies, including one in the Goudy Collection and another in the Rosenwald Collection with a plate signed by Doris Ulmann laid in.

Early Life

The Ulmanns had been highly successful merchants and textile manufacturers for generations. Doris Ulmann's father and brother immigrated to New York in 1867 from the Czech Republic by way of Germany. Doris Mae Ulmann grew to adulthood at 129 West Eighty-sixth Street in a refined genteel world. In Europe the family had been Reformed Jewish but in New York, Doris' branch was part of Felix Adler's Ethical Culture Movement that believed education was the route to improve humanity and incorporated ideas from various systems including Christianity. From 1900 to 1903 Doris attended the Ethical Culture School teacher training course and obtained a teachers degree that reinforced the progressive values of her household. She valued the individual, regardless of economic or ethnic background and retained the school's philosophy of training people to transform their "faulty" environments in a "beneficent" manner throughout her life.

Becoming a Photographer

Ulmann married at age thirty-two after nursing her mother through a final illness. From 1914 until 1917, together with her husband Charles Jaeger, a surgeon at Columbia University Medical School, she attended New York's Clarence H. White School of Photography, the first art photography school in the United States. Like most early art photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz, White School students worked in a soft-focus style known as Pictorialism and often manipulated the surfaces of their prints to create unique images like paintings.

While she studied with White, Ulmann mastered the large 6 by 8 inch glass-plate tripod-mounted folding view camera to make both studio and field studies, with a soft-focus lens. She photographed many genre scenes, tableaux, and portraits. She and her husband participated in the activities of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA) founded by White students. The PPA attempted to advance photography as art through education by holding annual exhibitions, publishing annual and circulating photo exhibitions to select public art spaces through the early 1930s.

Between 1918 and 1925, Ulmann made portraits of New York and Baltimore physicians and staff at prestigious medical schools and of editors of American magazines which she published in three volumes designed by celebrated typesetters and founders of The Village Press, Frederic and Bertha Goudy. Adherents to the design principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement, they made each volume more sophisticated than the one before. Ulmann's essay for the volume on editors reveals her awareness of the growing importance of periodicals in shaping thoughts:

Magazines are so great a part of our daily life that almost unbeknown to us they mold our opinions and colour our views on most of the great problems of the day. Insidiously they have become a part of us and often times the views we hold as our own have in truth been formed by the editors of our favourite magazines. It is but natural that we should care to know what manner of men are these, who have thus formulated our ideas, coloured our thoughts and directed our perception of humour. We have generally thought of an editor as one closed off behind innumerable doors, an enigma, inaccessible. In this volume an attempt has been made to bring the editors to book, to portray their personality and something of their character by means of photographic prints.

Ushering in the Era of Photojournalism in America

In 1917 Ulmann began to lecture at the White School. She was familiar with White's collaboration with art directors, publishers, and graphic designers and with the Art Director's Club he helped found in 1920 and their efforts to expand the role of artists in the print communications revolution of the 1920s. She began to invite celebrities including prominent intellectuals, actors, artists, explorers, and writers to her home for chat and portrait making.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, photojournalism became a legitimate, if disreputable, profession, with those employed by tabloids and daily newspapers at the bottom while magazine photographers occupied a status at a "cut above." Photographers for national magazines, such as National Geographic, McClure's, and Vanity Fair garnered greater prestige. Starting in the 1920s, Ulmann photographed many genre scenes, tableaux, and portraits, including prominent intellectuals, actors, artists, explorers, and writers which she published in art and literary periodicals such as PPA, Bookman, and Scribner's Magazine, magazines that placed her in the highest category of photojournalistic "respectability."

Acting on her Humanist Beliefs

In 1921, while divorcing her husband, Ulmann underwent major surgery for chronic ulcers. Friends noted that afterwards she was changed. Although she continued to make and exhibit her art photographs to critical acclaim, she devoted more effort to pursuing her longstanding interest in people "for whom life had not been a dance."

In 1925, Ulmann began traveling in the southeastern United States where she photographed people in "primitive and pre-industrial" communities, including religious ones. She often posed people performing outdated tasks in antiquarian clothing. Names went unrecorded; people were important to her primarily as types. She wrote about the aesthetics of her subject selections, "A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face."

The publication record of Ulmann's Appalachian photographs suggests that she became increasingly involved with organizations founded to celebrate the handmade object and dedicated to uplifting the makers of those objects. In 1928, her Appalachian photographs appeared in Scribner's Magazine in June and in Mentor in August.

In 1930 she displayed photographs in the first exhibition of the Southern Mountain Handicraft Guild in Knoxville where Allen Eaton saw them. Eaton was the leading advocate of American handicrafts and a representative of the Russell Sage Foundation that funded projects to improve social and living conditions in the U.S. Subsequently, Ulmann coordinated her mountain trips with Eaton's Foundation work. In 1932, folksinger John Jacob Niles began to assist Ulmann on her photographic excursions as he toured the same areas doing musical research and fieldwork, a collaboration that lasted even after her death. He included Ulmann's photographs in magazine articles he wrote, thus expanding the circulation of her work.

In 1932, the feminist and social activist Southern Women's Educational Alliance commissioned Ulmann to photograph young people in rural Kentucky. Her photographs promoted discussions that soon led the organization to become the Alliance for Guidance of Rural Youth. In May 1934, four of her photographs illustrated the Survey Graphic article, "People of an American Folk School," about the Campbell Folk School and its cooperatives, most of them operated by women. These organizations provided practical and religious education as means of social advancement.

At the same time, she depicted the culture of Appalachian mountain people, Ulmann also produced her best known and most artistic publication, the deluxe edition of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) by novelist Julia Peterkin. Visits to Peterkin's South Carolina farm inspired Ulmann to portray the life of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands, a unique vanishing culture. Peterkin's essays on the South accompany Ulmann's pictures from 1929 to 1933 of African-American workers on her farm. The portraits convey a haunting, supernatural element, as though the photographer was looking backward from the future.

In February 1934 the Library of Congress exhibited more than 100 platinum prints of Ulmann's Appalachian subjects of which it later acquired 44. While photographing in Appalachia in July, she became critically ill and died on August 28 in New York at age fifty-two. On her death bed, Ulmann created the Ulmann Foundation at Berea School to further the work. Her Foundation also donated another 110 prints to the Library of Congress.

When Eaton's exhibition and book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, came out in 1937, Ulmann's photographs accompanied the text. Her pictures of the makers of folk objects sometimes appeared alongside the objects themselves. Through judicious publication and exhibition, Ulmann attained her greatest wish, "that these human records shall serve some social purpose."

Contributions to Photojournalism

In the comfortable surroundings of her home, Ulmann captured people displaying greater ease than was typical in studio portraits. As photographs were assuming ever greater importance in magazines, publishers welcomed her photographs of celebrities looking accessible to the viewers. Away from home, she had an uncanny ability to communicate with people nonverbally regardless of their station in life.

Ulmann also expanded the vocabulary of photography to include all peoples and gave prominence to people outside the mainstream by publishing their portraits in books and periodicals. She was a transitional figure in the shift from fine art photography that began in the late nineteenth century to the socio-documentary mode that dominated the first half of the twentieth century when she coordinated portions of her trips with shooting scripts and needs of progressive organizations agencies, pre-dating the work of photographers for the famed Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) photographic project that started in the summer of 1935, only one year after her death.

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2010. Last revised: August 2010.

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  March 25, 2022
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